For specialist sheep producer Stuart Howard optimum output is the key to profitability from his 1000-ewe flock at Brede, East Sussex.
“Historically we were a mixed sheep and arable unit, but I packed up arable farming eight years ago to concentrate on sheep production. We could grow good crops of wheat here, but producing a decent break crop was increasingly frustrating and we have decent grass growing ground so it made sense to increase the sheep numbers and prioritise them,” explains Stuart.
“On top of that I’m more of a stockman than a tractor driver and since the switch the farm is in better heart and I’m happier with the system we have.”
Central to the sheep enterprise at Hare Farm are the 770 Mule ewes for which replacements are bought every autumn as ewe lambs from a NEMSA breeder at the Alston Moor sale at Lazonby.
“We’ve been working with Mules since my father first bought some in 1977 and have stuck with them ever since. The only change we’ve made to the stocking policy since then is to retain about 60 of our homebred Suffolk x Mule ewe lambs every year, with 250 of these ewes run alongside the Mule flock to produce earlier finishing prime lambs when put to Charollais sires.
“It would in some ways be easier to run a flock of just Mules, but having bred the Suffolk crosses I like to keep some back to follow them through to ewes.”
With all the Mule ewes put to Suffolk tups Stuart offers Suffolk x Mule ewe lambs every year as breeding lambs at Ashford Market, with the 2013 crop averaging £81 for the 400 sold at the first sale.
“This is a valuable source of income for us and it’s pleasing to see the same buyers regularly buying out of our run,” he adds.
But Stuart is certain the reason he can achieve a reasonable return for his ewe lambs is the quality of the Mules he buys every year. “It all comes down to buying the right lamb in the first place. I prefer to buy from one sale and ideally to buy all my lambs from one farm, having bought from Philip Dawson, Kentmere Hall, for several years now.
“Buying from one vendor eases a lot of the worry about health issues and means I know every lamb has been treated the same from day one. On top of that they’re all of a type and without a doubt that consistency of breeding shows through in the ewes later in life and in their progeny.
“All the ewes perform in the same manner and leave a consistent crop of lambs. When it comes to selling our Suffolk x Mule ewe lambs I’m often complimented on the evenness of the lambs. I’m certain that’s a result of buying good Mules in the first place and being willing to pay a little more for good quality lambs.”
Over the last few years Stuart says his NEMSA lambs have averaged anywhere from £95-£121 apiece when bought at Lazonby. “I could buy cheaper lambs, but you soon see the difference in the sheep even when you only pay just a little bit less. Lambs costing just £3-£4 less a head just don’t have the quality to them. As these lambs are with me for their lifetime the extra cost is soon written off.”
And Stuart says taking the time to go and buy the lambs himself makes a difference too. “It’s a fair drag up to Lazonby and it could be easier to let someone else do the buying for us, but if I buy them I know I’ve had the pick of the lambs and I’m not left wondering if I’ve got the sheep I should have. We used to let an agent buy for us, but I’d rather buy my own. And of course it’s a good couple of days away too!”
Once the ewe lambs have been bought and delivered home Stuart implements a careful quarantine strategy, vaccinating every lamb against footrot and drenching them to ensure no worm problems are bought on to the farm. “Additionally all the ewe lambs are trained to an electric fence and are sent away for the winter to graze green cover crops on my cousin’s farm about 30 miles away. It does them a lot of good and they come back in great form.
“For the last few years I’ve drawn off the biggest of the lambs to be tupped and this has worked well. It helps defray the costs of them a bit more and I’ve found the hoggs to be great mothers. This year the weather was so good that I lambed them outside and they were no bother at all,” he says.
Lambing of the main flock starts in mid-March with ewes housed from early January onwards to give the grass a break before ewes go back on to it after lambing. “We’ve got some fairly wet ground and a significant part of the river valley floods during the winter, so I have to get the sheep off the ground. Housing them may seem expensive, but it’s either that or send them away to keep and overall I think housing them at home makes sense, particularly as I have the buildings to cope with the number of sheep.
With the flock scanning at about 200% every year Stuart says the Suffolk x Mules serve another good purpose too, providing a reasonable supply of singles to foster triplet lambs on to from the Mule flock. “That said I have left about 30 sets of triplets this year and they have managed well, again due to the Mule’s great milkiness and ability to thrive off grass alone.”
Once housed ewes are fed hay and concentrate with 1lb/head a day offered up until about four weeks from lambing when feed rates go up to 1.5lb/head a day for singles, 2lb/head a day for twins and 2.5lb/head a day for triplets.
“But once we’ve lambed the ewes are turned out as soon as possible and then we don’t feed them at all. I’m keen to make best use of grass and regularly reseed to ensure we have some good new leys for the ewes and lambs each spring.”
Lambs generally aren’t creep fed either, apart from the Charollais crosses on the Suffolk x Mule ewes. “Creep feeding these makes sense as they can be away quickly and helps cash flow early in the summer before we start drawing the Suffolk cross whethers.
I maintain a flexible approach when it comes to marketing the Suffolk cross wethers, dependent on the store and prime trade and the year. “I generally pull off better fleshed lambs and put them on to better grass and creep too. I then tend to sell the rest as stores. It all depends on the trade and if the investment in feed for the lambs looks like being returned by a better price,” he explains.
And he may be in the heartland of the Romney, but Stuart says he sees the Mule as the future of his sheep enterprise. “With the Mules I can sell just shy of two lambs a ewe a year and no doubt if I worked with the Romneys it would be less and we wouldn’t be able to earn the premium from our ewe lambs that we do now.
“Mules work for me on every level and I’m a firm believer in not fixing what isn’t broken!”